Increase in suicides among Border Patrol agents causes alarm

By Paul J. Weber
Thursday, August 19, 2010

FORT HANCOCK, TEX. -- After a bad day on the job as a Border Patrol agent, Eddie DeLaCruz went home and began discussing with his wife how to celebrate her upcoming birthday. Then he casually pressed his government-issued handgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.

"It was the ugliest sound I ever heard in my life," his widow, Toni DeLaCruz, recalled of that day last November. "He just collapsed." A month later, one of DeLaCruz's colleagues at the Fort Hancock border post shot himself, too.

Suicides such as these have set off alarms throughout the agency responsible for policing the nation's borders. After nearly four years without a single suicide in its ranks, the Border Patrol has had at least 15 agents take their own lives since February 2008.

It's unclear why the agents killed themselves. Few of them left notes. And the agency seems somewhat at odds with itself over the issue.

Federal officials insist that the deaths have nothing to do with the Border Patrol, which has doubled in size since 2004, or the increasingly volatile U.S.-Mexican border. But administrators have quietly undertaken urgent suicide-prevention initiatives, including special training for supervisors, videos about warning signs and educational programs for 22,000 agents nationwide.

"It's a microcosm of life," said Christine Gaugler, head of human resources for Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol. "There's no uptick. It has nothing to do with our hiring. We are just responding to the suicides that have occurred."

The agency declined to provide details of the suicides and would confirm only the number of deaths since 2008. But the Associated Press obtained the names, locations and dates of the deaths by reviewing public records and by speaking with federal officials. It also received a copy of the training video, along with information about steps federal officials have taken to address the suicides.

The 17-minute video, made earlier this year, is part tribute to the dead and part cautionary tale. It implores agents battling depression or stress to ask for help -- a candid suggestion for an agency that once forbade agents from appearing in uniform at the funerals of colleagues who killed themselves.

The video was made by the agency's El Paso sector following at least four suicides among its agents, and other sectors have embraced it. In the video, agent Edmundo Puga Jr. describes receiving a call about a suicide.

"At first I get upset, thinking, 'Not another one,' " he says. "Or, 'Here we go again.' " All but two of the recent deaths involved agents stationed in Texas, California or Arizona.

In interviews, Border Patrol officials and families of the dead agents pointed to professional and personal reasons.

The job, whose pay starts at about $37,000 a year, has changed dramatically since the hiring surge began.

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